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Libya rebels push west again, but Sirte awaits

In the past 24 hours, Libya’s rebels have made stunning territorial gains. But Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi’s stronghold of Sirte won't be so easy to take.

By Staff writer / March 27, 2011

Rebels celebrate after recapturing the town of Ras Lanuf from forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, Sunday. Libyan rebels took back control of the town of Bin Jawad, 330 miles east of the capital Tripoli, and said they would push on soon towards Muammar Gaddafi's stronghold of Sirte.

Youssef Boudlal/Reuters

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Benghazi, Libya

In late February, the Libyan revolution was evolving at breakneck speed. After ousting Muammar Qaddafi’s forces from Benghazi and the rest of the country’s eastern population centers, untested young fighters piled into trucks and private cars and surged west.

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Rolling into Bin Jawwad on Feb. 28 and knocking on the doorstep of Mr. Qaddafi’s hometown of Sirte, there was patriotism, optimism, and a steady conviction that the mercurial dictator was days away from death or exile.

Then came the counterattack from an enemy the rebels couldn’t see.

The shabaab (youths) were ambushed by Qaddafi supporters secreted inside Bin Jawwad, driven out of the oil town of Ras Lanuf by withering rocket and tank fire that killed dozens, and knocked all the way back to Ajdabiya, the gateway to Libya’s liberated east.

Now this ping pong match of a war along Libya’s coastal desert has shifted back in the rebellion’s favor, thanks to a week of French, UK, and American air assaults that have shifted the burden of fear onto Qaddafi’s forces.

Qaddafi’s air cover has been removed from the equation and the desert roads that his tanks and missile launchers once prowled with impunity have turned into a turkey shoot for British Tornadoes and French Mirages.

Thanks to international action, the rebels have returned to Bin Jawwad a month after their retreat. And now, as then, there’s euphoria that Sirte, the gateway to the Libyan west, is within their grasp.

Qaddafi's hometown

But that euphoria should be tempered. Qaddafi’s hometown is filled with members of his extended family and tribe, the Gaddafa, a once minor group who have grown rich and influential thanks to his patronage.

While there have been scattered rumors of anti-Qaddafi protests in Sirte and accurate information is hard to come by, there are undoubtedly many die-hard supporters of the regime in town. Qaddafi’s best units, including the 32nd Brigade led by his son Khamis Qaddafi, have sent reinforcements to Sirte and it’s been a staging ground for attacks into the east.

To be sure, the spirit of Qaddafi’s fighters was as broken as their tanks were by the international coalition's assault around Ajdabiya. When the survivors of Qaddafi’s force finally cut and ran on Saturday morning, panicked crews abandoned their tanks, and some shed their uniforms.

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